For the first time since Churban HaBayis, archaeologists displayed on Tuesday a reconstruction of several floor tiles from the courtyard of the Bayis Sheini.
According to Dr. Gavriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira, co-founders and co-directors of the Har HaBayis Sifting Project, this reconstruction is unprecedented. “This represents the first time that archaeologists have been able to successfully restore an element from the Herodian Bayis Sheini,” said Dvira at an unveiling of the tiles at the project’s headquarters in Tzurim Valley National Park, located on the western slopes of Mount Scopus.
The regally designed ancient tiles likely featured prominently in the courtyards of the Beis Hamikdash during King Herod’s reign between 37 to 4 B.C.E., added Barkay.
“It enables us to get an idea of the incredible splendor of the Beis Hamikdash,” he said.
To date, approximately 600 colored stone floor tile parts have been uncovered, with more than 100 of them definitively dated to the Herodian Period of the Bayis Sheini.
“This style of flooring is consistent with those found in Herod’s palaces at Masada, Herodian and Yericho, among others – as well as in majestic palaces and villas in Italy, also attributed to the time of Herod,” said Frankie Snyder, a member of the Har HaBayis Sifting Project’s team of researchers, and an expert in the study of ancient Herodian-style flooring.
The tile segments – mostly imported from Rome, Asia Minor, Tunisia, and Egypt – were created from polished multicolored stones, cut in a variety of geometric shapes.
“A key characteristic of the Herodian tiles is their size, which corresponds to the Roman foot, approximately 29.6 cm (12 inches),” noted Snyder.
Snyder said they succeeded in restoring the ornate tile patterns using geometric principles, and through similarities found in tile design used by Herod at other sites.
“This type of flooring, called ‘opus sectile’ [Latin for ‘cut work’] is very expensive, and was considered to be far more prestigious than mosaic tiled floors,” said Snyder, who has an academic background in mathematics and Judaic Studies.
The possibility that large expanses of the Har HaBayis during the Bayis Sheini period were covered with opus sectile flooring was first raised in 2007 by archaeologist Assaf Avraham, director of the Yerushalayim Walls National Park, with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Avraham’s theory was based on a description given by the Roman-Jewish historian Yosef Ben Mattisyahu (Josephus), who wrote, “…the uncovered [Har HaBayis courtyard] was completely paved with stones of various types and colors…” (The Jewish Wars 5:2).
Moreover, the Gemara (Sukkah 51b and Bava Basra 4a) records the meticulously-planned construction of the Har HaBayis, describing rows of marble in different colors, including green, blue and white.
“Now, as a result of Frankie Snyder’s mathematical skills, we have succeeded in recreating the actual tile patterns,” said Barkay.
“Referring to the Beis Mikdash that Herod built, the Gemara says, ‘Whoever has not seen Herod’s building, has not seen a beautiful building in his life,’” he continued. “Though we have not merited seeing the Beis Hamikdash in its glory, with the discovery and restoration of these unique floor tiles, we are now able to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Bayis Sheini, even through just this distinctive characteristic.”